Pilots gonna pilot, and the first episode of NBC's highly anticipated* Animal Practice reeks of pilotitis and studio notes getting in the way of what could be a decent comedy. That's not to say you should put the series in a shoe box and bury it in the backyard (or throw it on the BBQ because why waste good meat like my grandpa always said) just yet. I'm still convinced the show's premise—a cranky chief vet at the nation's largest animal hospital—is strong enough to pull this sitcom through once all the kinks are worked out.
(* by monkey lovers)
If you pay attention to any critics' chatter, you know the big draw and early talking point of Animal Practice: It's the one with the monkey (Crystal, who plays Annie's Boobs on Community and who was also in The Hangover). But wait! There's more! Justin Kirk (who is great on Weeds as Andy) stars as Dr. George Coleman, a brilliant veterinarian who loves animals but hates people yet loves women, or at least getting in their trou. In the opening minutes of the pilot, his position as chief honcho is threatened by the new owner of the animal hospital, stick-up-her-butt Dorothy Crane (Joanna Garcia-Swisher), the granddaughter who inherited the building after granny kicked it. She's predictably not on board with Coleman's methods, which mostly involve berating the humans who bring their pets in for treatment. And yes, the doc and Dorothy used to be in a romantic relationship, like duh obviously (LDO). Bobby Lee, Betsy Sodaro, and Tyler Labine (who's still searching for the quality project he deserves) play bumbling vets suitably caricatured for Animal Practice's wacky tone, but there's nothing smart about their antics. In one gag that is a real patience-tester, Lee's character is slowly constricted by a large snake. In another, Sodaro painfully points out the already obvious sexual tension with schoolyard taunts, just in case the audience is too comatose (or in NBC's eyes, stupid) to pick up on it.
But even though many of the jokes in the pilot fall flat, the idea of parodying the medical-drama genre in the world of an animal hospital is too good to pass up. Matt Walsh (Veep) as a dog owner who would rather just put his daughter's dog down instead of spending money on life-saving surgery is a great example of the twisted humor Animal Practice could thrive on. And the opening bit of a cat choosing suicide by jumping off a building instead of having to sit through another episode of Wendy Williams with its crazy cat lady owner shows how Animal Practice is sitting on a gold mine of skewering human behavior through the lens of animals and animal lovers.
Though they're the biggest problem in the pilot, I'm less worried about the homo sapien characters on the show, because with few exceptions, most characters in the first half-hour of a comedy are atrocious and take several episodes to blossom. Remember the first impression that Jeff Winger made on Community? Yes, George Coleman is about a quarter of a developed character right now, and his back-and-forth with Dorothy is currently at a Sitcom 101 level, but that has a very good chance of sorting itself out in later episodes.
What's more concerning is how Animal Practice will use its critters. That's not to say animals aren't people too, but the creatures need to be devices that reflect the personalities and circumstances of the humans, whether those humans are owners or doctors. The easy route, or in NBC's terms, the "broader route," would be to parade the animals around for cheap sight gags, but the thing that will bring viewers back are the people.
I really want to like Animal Practice and I'm confident that it could be good, but it can only go one of two ways. It either fulfills its potential as a zany comedy or goes lowbrow and comes off as an extended series of animal-based YouTube videos. Sorry, Crystal!
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